Will strike for a living wage: Grads feel empowered by the union

Soili Smith has limited choices: She can work a $12-an-hour job and fail to pay her bills, risking eviction. Or she can take a higher-paying summer position that requires her to miss the last few weeks of classes and fly thousands of miles to northern British Columbia, where she’ll work 14-hour days in the bush.

She chose the latter, since it’s really not much of a choice. As a result, she says, “I’m often writing my final papers in a tent.” By day, she’s building bridges, clearing access roads and reforesting recently logged clear-cuts. At night, she’s still knocking out papers for a doctorate in American studies.

Smith is a graduate employee at Rutgers University, and she’s not the only grad who struggles to make ends meet. That’s why she and the vast majority of other members of Rutgers AAUP-AFT voted to go on strike if they don’t make significant progress toward a fair contract.

It’s not unusual for grads to take multiple jobs just to stay afloat. They’re bartenders and baristas, dog walkers, nannies, ice cream scoopers, taxi drivers. Smith is no different, but as an international student — she’s Canadian — her choices are limited by employment laws. As a teaching assistant, she already has grading responsibilities, but she’s taken on extra grading from other professors to make more money. Due to her immigration status, it’s a complicated process to make this work. “I have to get a lot of permissions from a lot of different places,” she says.

“Every month I go into the negative in my bank account. I’m doing the best I can to live as cheaply as possible, but it’s just not enough.”

She does it anyway, because she can’t afford not to. She shares housing with two other people, and carefully budgets so that she pays rent first — otherwise that money will be eaten up by other everyday expenses, like groceries. “Every month I go into the negative in my bank account,” she says. One week she went without anxiety medication because she had no way to pay for it. “I’m doing the best I can to live as cheaply as possible but it’s just not enough.”

Contrary to what administrators seem to believe, graduate workers like Smith are not young kids with family wealth to back them up. “I think I’m one of the youngest people in my doctoral program and I’m 32,” she says. “Half of us have children, are married and in our 40s.” Additionally, graduate school — an increasingly necessary pathway to stable employment — should be available to anyone, regardless of family background and wealth.

Getting by on $26,000 a year in North Jersey, the standard salary for a graduate employee, is nearly impossible. Rutgers AAUP-AFT is asking for $29,000 — but administrators are balking because that represents a 25 percent raise. Although that may seem like “a really big percentage number,” says Smith, $29,000 is still a pittance for the essential, professional work grad employees perform.

Aware that graduate workers and some undergraduate students are living in poverty, Rutgers runs food banks on each of its three campuses — but still refuses to pay a living wage.

Aware that graduate workers and some undergraduate students are living in poverty, Rutgers runs food banks on each of its three campuses — but still refuses to pay a living wage. To make matters worse, says Smith, “we have to open up the Rutgers webpage and see that [Rutger’s President Robert] Barchi is making deals to buy a private jet for the football program. Oh, and we have a new $10 million locker room. I’m a former student athlete. I’m not against athletics, but I can’t imagine how that can be prioritized when you’re acknowledging food insecurity and there are wage disparities.”

Of course, this sort of disregard for the needs of graduate workers (and faculty as well, says Smith) signals disrespect for the work they do. And that is magnified times 10 at the bargaining table. “It’s radicalizing to watch bargaining,” says Smith, who has attended bargaining sessions as part of the open bargaining arrangement the union has secured. “You hear the way they talk about you. It’s interesting to see the tone with which they dismiss graduate interests.”

At least the grads are at the bargaining table, and the union is holding the university accountable. “What’s helpful about the union is that we are not merely at the mercy of administrators,” says Smith. And because grads are part of an 8,000-member union that includes tenured, tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty, they have a more stable platform from which to speak. “That solidarity forces administrators to hear us when they otherwise would not,” says Smith. “They have to address our concerns because we have such a large body of workers in a single union.”

“It’s empowering to have a union,” she says. “It makes me a better advocate for myself and others.” And if the grad workers’ fight for a fair wage comes to a strike? “There’s safety in a union.”

Soili Smith is a teaching assistant at Rutgers University-Newark, working toward her doctorate in American studies.

This story originally appeared at AFT Voices.